Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 14. The Charge of Plagiarism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. Translators

§ 14. The Charge of Plagiarism

Besides the translations openly made and avowed, there are others which masquerade as fresh, unborrowed works. In his Elizabethan Sonnets, Sidney Lee has traced to their origin in France or Italy a vast number of English sonnets. He has proved the debt which the poets of the sixteenth century owed to their predecessors. He has set side by side in a close parallel the sonnets of Lodge and Ronsard, of Daniel and Desportes. He has shown most clearly what Wyatt and many others took from Petrarch. He has illustrated the “influence” of Marot, du Bellay, de Pontoux, Jacques de Billy and Durant upon our bards, great and small. As an episode in the history of translation this “influence” is of the greatest interest. We should not consider its moral aspect too censoriously. In Puttenham’s despite, the Elizabethans do not seem to have regarded plagiarism as a heinous sin. If they had, who would have escaped condemnation? No doubt Southern, who pilfered from Ronsard, and spoiled what he pilfered, deserved all the censure which the critic heaped upon him. But there are indications not merely that plagiarism was thought respectable, but that a translator might claim as his own that which he had put into English. “I call it mine,” says Nicholas Grimald of his translation of Cicero’s De Officiis, “as Plautus and Terence called the comedies theirs which they made out of Greek”; and, doubtless, Wyatt, Daniel, Lodge, Spenser and the rest called the sonnets theirs which they had made out of French and Italian, because they had made them. Ben Jonson did not think it worth while to give Philostratus credit for his “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” and he left it for the critics of a later age to track every chapter of his Discoveries to its lair. In neither case need the morality of his method be discussed, and Dryden’s defence of him may stand as a defence for all save for such burglars as Southern: “He has done his robberies so openly, that we may see that he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him.”